Terms of Engagement

Don’t Fear the Brotherhood

Running away from the Islamic party is exactly what the entrenched Egyptian ruling class wants America to do.

-/AFP/Getty Images
-/AFP/Getty Images

When U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, speaking last week at a security conference in Munich, alluded to "forces at work" in the protests in Egypt — or "in any society" — "that will try to derail or overtake the process to pursue their own specific agenda," she didn’t have to spell out whom she had in mind: the Muslim Brotherhood. Those spoilers, she went on, were the reason it was so important to support "the transition process" initiated by Egypt’s new vice president, Omar Suleiman, even though it wholly excludes both the protesters themselves and their principal demands.

Not to be outdone, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, denounced President Barack Obama’s administration for going soft on "extremists" like the Brotherhood, who "must not be allowed to hijack the movement toward democracy and freedom in Egypt." No matter how Egypt’s transition unfolds, one thing is likely to remain constant for Egypt’s defensive and endangered ruling class: The Muslim Brotherhood will be a gift that keeps on giving.

Egypt’s rulers have long understood that they can’t persuade the West that secular reformers pose a danger to Egypt or the world. The Islamists, however, are another story. And while the secularists have been a minor nuisance to the regime (at least until just now), the Brotherhood — well-organized, disciplined, and widely admired — really did constitute a political threat. So the regime and its defenders harp relentlessly on the Brotherhood’s "real" intentions. When I was in Cairo in early 2007, Hossam Badrawi, the man who was just named Secretary-General of the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP), told me that allowing the Brotherhood to freely run for office would be like legalizing the Nazi party in Germany. Another cautioned that, while the Brothers were not "necessarily" terrorists, they certainly hoped to impose Saudi-style sharia on Egypt.

And it worked. After making a rousing 2005 speech at the American University in Cairo calling on President Hosni Mubarak to open up the political process, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice answered a question by saying, "We have not engaged the Muslim Brotherhood, and…we won’t." Mubarak’s security forces subsequently beat and killed Brotherhood supporters in parliamentary elections, and the White House issued only the mildest protest. George W. Bush’s administration maintained a conspicuous silence as the regime carried out mass arrests of the opposition group’s leaders in 2007.

It’s not only the regime’s apologists who profess to fear the Muslim Brotherhood; I had no trouble finding secular Cairenes who took an equally dim view. The group’s slogan is, after all, "Islam is the solution," and the appeal its political leaders make to the rank and file is long on religious orthodoxy. Still, I spent two weeks talking to members of the Brotherhood — something the secular critics rarely do — and though I did feel they were putting their best foot forward for a Western journalist, I was struck by their reluctance to impose their views on others and their commitment to democratic process. They had been drawn to the Brotherhood not only by piety but also by the group’s reputation for social service and personal probity.

Many of these men were lawyers, doctors, or engineers. But I also spent several evenings with an electrician named Magdy Ashour, who had been elected to parliament from a dismal slum at the furthest edge of Cairo (he’s now an independent, after being ousted from the Brotherhood in December). He was at pains to counter what he assumed were my preconceptions. "When people hear the name Muslim Brotherhood, they think of terrorism and suicide bombings," Ashour conceded. "We want to establish the perception of an Islamic group cooperating with other groups, concerned about human rights. We do not want to establish a country like Iran, which thinks that it is ruling with a divine mandate. We want a government based on civil law, with an Islamic source of lawmaking."

And just what is an "Islamic source of lawmaking?" Muhammad Habib, then the Muslim Brotherhood’s deputy supreme guide — its second-ranking official– explained to me that, under such a system, parliament would seek the advice of religious scholars on issues touching upon religion, though such views could never be binding. A democratically elected parliament, he asserted, would still have the "absolute right" to pass a law the Brotherhood deemed "un-Islamic." And the proper redress for religious objections would be a formal appeal process in the constitutional court.

Maybe they were lying. But I didn’t think so. More to the point, the Muslim Brotherhood’s then 88-member caucus in the legislature studiously avoided religious issues and worked with secular opposition members on issues of democracy and human rights. They all lived together in a hotel, showed up for work every day, and invited outside experts for policy briefings. It was widely agreed that the Brothers took parliament far more seriously than members of the ruling party ever had.

In a free election, the Brothers would have swamped the NDP, but instead, they only contested a quarter of the seats in the People’s Assembly; they did not want to provoke a backlash by an imperiled regime. Even serving in office was new for the organization, which had preoccupied itself for years with service and organization at the community and mosque level. It is true that one wing of the Muslim Brotherhood, radicalized in prison in the 1960s, became the forerunner of al Qaeda; Ayman al-Zawahiri, the leader of this faction, is now Osama bin Laden’s deputy. But many of Zawahiri’s cellmates rejected his call for violent resistance and embraced meliorism and a cautious, if often shadowy, distance from the state. It is this latter group that has shaped the modern Brotherhood. To not alarm the West, the Brotherhood has said that it will not run a candidate even if permitted to do so in a democratic presidential contest. Because this is consistent with past behavior, the burden of proof is on those who view the group’s promise as a cynical ruse.

The Muslim Brotherhood has spread throughout the Arab world but has no central command, and in each country it has been shaped by the local political culture. In the Palestinian territories, the Brotherhood became Hamas; in Turkey, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). The Egyptian Brotherhood does not engage in violence like Hamas but neither has it integrated into the larger society and polity like the AKP. The Brothers have been able to cling to vague and simple-minded slogans precisely because, unlike the AKP, they haven’t been allowed to compete openly in the political marketplace. If they were to do so, the organization would have to choose between the tolerant-sounding message it offers to Western visitors and the more reactionary one reserved for the home front.

I think that’s a risk Egypt should take — not only because the Muslim Brotherhood is not Hamas, but because, in the wake of the thoroughly secular mass protest movement, the Brotherhood is no longer likely to attract a majority of Egyptian voters.

Still, that’s not a risk Clinton or the Muslim Brotherhood’s more vocal American detractors are in the mood for. The "specific agenda" they fear is not that the Brotherhood will impose sharia, but that it could destroy Israel. The Brothers with whom I spoke were not only anti-Israel, but pro-Hamas. Israel has every reason to fear the prospect of a Muslim Brotherhood government. But would a secular democracy in Egypt be more sympathetic to Israel than an Islamist one? In Egypt, as elsewhere in the Arab world, elites have learned that accepting Israel’s existence is the price of admission to international good opinion. But the man or woman on the street would like to see Israel disappear tomorrow.

Successive U.S. administrations have supported Arab autocrats because they help advance a number of vital American interests; defending Israel is, of course, right on top of the list. Concern for Israel’s security has thus been one of the chief factors limiting U.S. support for democracy in the Arab world. The Bush administration underwent a serious change of heart on the subject when Hamas won democratic elections in Palestine in January 2006. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is now imploring the Obama administration to help keep Mubarak and his team in office, no matter the consequences for Egypt’s revolution. He (along with some of those autocratic allies) has found a receptive audience in Washington.

The repudiation of Israel is a very serious problem — but it is a problem with Middle Eastern democracy, not with Islamism. Turkey, the one democracy in the region, has taken a sharp turn away from its pro-Israel policies of years past. Turkish diplomats will tell you that public opinion will not permit a different policy. The answer, for the United States and for Israel, cannot be to stand athwart history shouting, "Stop!" The only possible answer is to accept the legitimate aspirations of the Palestinian people for a state of their own. If that happens, American officials will sound a lot less conflicted about the Muslim Brotherhood’s democratic bona fides.

James Traub is a regular contributor to Foreign Policy, a nonresident fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation, and author of the book What Was Liberalism? The Past, Present and Promise of A Noble Idea.

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